Friday, April 9, 2010

Next Year at Marienbad: Films with “The Complexity of Thought”

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


Having gone on record preferring films with ideas, complexity, and ambiguity that challenges viewers even as they entertain them, I find the comments below both fascinating and prescient. I believe filmed narrative will eventually transcend its current preoccupation with depicting impossibilities and absurdities to the exclusion of almost all else. After all, how many different ways can you blow something up, or get wasted and have sex? Even the DC and Marvel Comics pantheons have limited populations suitable for adaptation to movies. And, if I’m wrong, well, that faith still gets me through.

In Interviews With Film Directors, Edited by Andrew Sarris, The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1967, pp. 439 - 46, director Alain Resnais, in speaking of his remarkably seminal film, Last Year At Marienbad, discussed his approach to its conception and style of discourse:

For me the film is an attempt, still very crude and primitive, to approach the complexity of thought and its mechanism. But I stress the fact that this is only a tiny step forward by comparison with what we should be able to do someday. I find that as soon as we delve into the Unconscious, an emotion may be born...  I believe that, in life, we don’t think chronologically, that our decisions never correspond to an ordered logic. All of us have ‘clouds,’ things which determine us but which are not a logical succession of acts arranged in perfect sequence. I am interested in exploring that universe, from the point of view of truth, if not of morality. (Italics mine)

“I am interested in exploring that universe (thought), from the point of view of truth, if not of morality.” It seems to me that standard Hollywood movie narrative, believe it or not, is all about Resnais’ “morality.” Today’s films, perhaps more than those of earlier periods, seem obsessed with morality questions. Everything from Iron Man to The Hangover to The Hurt Locker has, as a pivotal element, ethical conflict dispensed from a moral viewpoint. Resnais prefers truth to morality. Why? Perhaps because truth is constant, while morality is relative.

For example, you (China) see yourself in a world with threatening political systems all around you. But you have an advantage: you have a much greater population of peasant workers who can out-compete the rest of the world. But you know you need to maximize that or be transcended by your closest competitor (India) who is populous, too. So you compel your population to produce fewer girls because males form the predominant industrial work-force. A kind of state-genocidal imperative becomes patriotic, a moral choice made for the long-term good at the expense of half its children.

But Resnais is interested in telling his truths at the speed and manner of thought. He likens it not as extruded through the standard Hollywood narrative’s toothpaste tube, in a linear progression, cause to effect. Rather he sees thought as a cloud within which the mind apparently wanders, making sense of it (or not) as it will. Dreams always seem more reasonable to us while dreaming them than they do when we are awake and recalling them. Resnais wants his films to be dreams. To get at truths we otherwise might never realize. 


For MARIENBAD, we (Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet) made a complete chronology on graph paper. And we always said before beginning any scene with the actors: ‘This scene follows, on the level of the montage, such and such a scene, but in terms of its degree of reality, it follows another scene which will appear much later in the film.’ Moreover, very often, I would film a bit from the preceding scene, in order to work from the continuity and not from the cue itself. Of course, this chronology was established once the scenario (the script) was finished. For example, all costume changes naturally correspond to different pieces of time. This is certainly not the key to the film, if indeed there is one. But it is true that we could re-edit the film so as to restore the chronological order of the scenes. We might imagine, for example, that the film extends over a week, or at least that everything which is in the present takes from Sunday to Sunday inclusive. Which doesn’t keep Robbe-Grillet from saying: ‘Perhaps it happens in five minutes.’ This is consistent with the dilation of time in dreams, insofar as we understand the mechanism of dreams.

Alain Robbe-Grillet adds:

Very curiously, the people who reproach MARIENBAD for being ‘contrived’ are those who accept as spontaneous works which respect fixed rules of contrivance, recipes, norms. And these people reason as if there were a previously existent reality and as if it were no more than a question of finding the forms which would make a good understanding of the story available to the public.
At another point in the interview, Resnais adds:

One must know to what extent one can share one’s subjective reality with ‘everyone,’ in the sense that we all have two eyes, hair, a thought, etc. One arrives quite naturally at the notion of a planetary Unconscious.


When I see a film, I am more interested in the play of feelings than in the characters. I think we could arrive at a Cinema without psychologically definite characters, in which the feelings would have free play in the way that, in a contemporary canvas, the play of forms becomes stronger than the anecdote.

I found Last Year at Marienbad, itself, to be boring. I could not relate to the characters. I didn’t care what their issues were. But I found its narrative approach fascinating and worthy of use in cases where the events were compelling. Imagine a favorite film in which the emotional stakes are both universal and powerful, told instead in this manner. Imagine characters we cared about, loose in Resnais’ filmic world. These would rival, if not equal, our own dreams, our own nightmares. And they would compel us and intrigue us to re-visit again and again. #


Lee A. Matthias

Quote of the Post:

I want to know what happens next, not what happened Last Year at Marienbad.
---I.A.L. Diamond

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